Five questions you should ask to make sense of the university application figures

Tomorrow the first UCAS application figures for this year are officially published, with some leaked figures having appeared in the Sunday Times today. Superficially the headline figures are not great with an apparent 10% drop. But I’m holding off forming a view until I’ve seen the full figures, because there are five key questions to ask about the figures:

1. Some courses, such as medicine, tend to have much earlier application deadlines than those for other courses. Are applications for those early closing courses dropping (which would indicate a problem) or is it that early applications for courses with later deadlines are dropping (which would indicate people taking more time to decide this year and so still an open question)?

2. What is the social breakdown of any changes? An widely held but rarely tested assumption in the debates over university finance has been that potential students from less well off hosueholds are going to be more put off by the new fees scheme, and in particularly the large nominal debt figures, than those from better off households. However, when you look at actual repayment levels (and bear in mind the writing off of unpaid debt), those from the least well off households generally should find the new scheme more attractive. Which is turning out to be the case?

3. How do the figures compare not only to last year but years prior to that, bearing in mind that last year has a pre-fees bulge?

4. Is the change in applications in England any different from that in Scotland? If it is, then tuition fees can be pointed to as the cause. If it isn’t, then it is something else.

5. And finally, when comparing figures, how do they look when counted not in simple numbers but as a proportion of the 18 year old population? That’s relevant as if I understand the population figures correctly, the number of 18 year olds is dropping.

Or in other words, expects lots of dramatic statements about the figures, a large number of which will be wrong. Which are wrong will depend on the answers to these questions.

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